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Minnesota Hockey: Gophers open the Justen Close Era against Alaska

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The new Gopher starting goalie has a pair of non-conference games to get up to speed

Brace Hemmelgarn—Gophersports.com

The Minnesota Gophers will play their final non-conference series of the season this weekend when they host the Alaska Nanooks at 3M Arena. It’s a rescheduled series that originally was to be the season opener, but was postponed due to COVID issues with the Alaska team. Meanwhile three months later, COVID is still a thing and Minnesota will be missing a few players this weekend due to COVID. Oh yeah, and that whole new goalie who has never started an actual college game that counts things. Junior goalie Justen Close is expected to make his first actual collegiate start on Friday night now that Jack LaFontaine is off with the Carolina Hurricanes. Hopefully Minnesota will have enough depth in the rest of the lineup after injuries and COVID to not leave him out to dry.

Minnesota enters the weekend after a road sweep of Michigan State in their final series with Jack LaFontaine in goal. The Gophers got a huge offensive boost from newly named US Olympian Ben Meyers who was named the Big Ten’s #1 Star of the Week after scoring four goals and adding an assist in the series against the Spartans. He also was named Minnesota’s nominee for the Hobey Baker Award for which you can vote for him HERE.

Minnesota will miss Meyers, Brock Faber, and Mathew Knies when they depart for the Olympics, but they still have three more series with them in the lineup including this one.

Minnesota will need all three to have big weekends—assuming they are all in the lineup. Bob Motzko in his weekly press conference stated that the Gophers have four players who are currently testing positive for COVID and may not see action this weekend depending on when they are set free from isolation. Add that to Jaxon Nelson and Rhett Pitlick both who suffered injuries in the series against Michigan State and are not expected back for a few weeks, and it could be a very short lineup for Minnesota this weekend.

Thus, not that he needs more stress, but the weekend may come down to how well Close can do making his starting debut. Close has played in six collegiate games in his career, all in mop-up duty. He did start both Minnesota’s exhibition games against St. Thomas and the US under-18 team earlier in January and won both games allowing just two goals against the Tommies, and three to the US team. If he can continue at that pace, Minnesota should be just fine. And the Nanooks are not an offensive juggernaut, so this should be an easier weekend to get his feet under him.

Alaska enters the weekend with a 5-14-1 record playing as an Independent this season. They did not play hockey last season due to COVID and travel issues, and when the WCHA folded and most of the conference joined the revamped CCHA the Nanooks were left on the outside looking in without a conference affiliation. Alaska comes into the weekend after splitting a series at Maine last weekend earning a6-2 win on Friday before dropping a 4-2 game on Saturday. The Nanooks have played a tough schedule this season tying #8 Denver and taking #2 UMD to overtime before losing 1-0 in Duluth over Thanksgiving.

Alaska generally starts Latvian goalie Gustavs Davis Gringals in net. He has started 17 of the Nanooks 19 games and has a 262 goals against average and a .913 save percentage. Freshman Brady Risk leads the team in both posts with 19 and goals with 8. Three other players are in double figures with points as well. As a team the Nanooks score just 2.1 goals per game, so if Close can play well and Minnesota can get an early lead, this could make this weekend much easier on themselves.

This weekend is about doing whatever you need to do to get your goalie comfortable in net and get a pair of wins. That can be ugly, it doesn’t matter, but a loss to the Nanooks will be quite damaging to the Gophers pairwise rankings. Get the wins, keep people healthy, and get ready for a huge series against Michigan the following weekend.

HOW TO WATCH:

Alaska Nanooks @ #8 Minnesota Gophers

Where: 3M Arena at Mariucci, Minneapolis, MN

When: 6PM Friday/Saturday

TV: Bally Sports North Plus

Stream: Bally Sports App/ BTN+

Radio: 1130 AM/103.5 FM/ I Heart Radio